|Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
In the July 2013 issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, author Milan Vego in his article ‘On Military Creativity,’ writes, “Creativity is the key element in the successful planning, preparation, and execution of a combat action and ultimately in winning a war.” Vego further maintains that the U.S. military of today is hampered in the creativity necessary to ‘win’ wars by bureaucratic and organizational limitations such as the requirement for excessive conformity, intolerance of views that don’t agree with established policy, and lack of professional education and self-education of the military officer corps.
The same thing Vego says about warfare could be applied to diplomacy.
Like warfare, while diplomacy requires possession of a broad range of technical skills, success in diplomacy comes from the creative application of those skills at the most appropriate time. And, like the military, our nation’s diplomatic corps is currently struggling under a host of limitations that constrain its ability to be as successful in today’s uncertain environment as is necessary to ensure our national security and prosperity.
Unlike the military, which trains its members in tasks that they hope they will never have to perform, the U.S. Foreign Service professional is posted abroad with some tradecraft and technical training that must be applied on a daily basis in the performance of diplomatic duties. Similar to the military, though, Foreign Service professionals are committed to service in the nation’s interests, often at great risk, as was demonstrated in the unfortunate incident in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012 in which the U.S. ambassador and several American staff were killed.
Organizational Limitations on Diplomatic Creativity
Creativity in an international environment consists of the ability of diplomatic professionals to find novel solutions to the problems they face, and then applying those solutions to best advantage. This ability is often hampered by the State Department bureaucracy, whose leadership is dominated by inexperienced political appointees and civil servants with limited experience operating in a foreign environment who attempt to micromanage events abroad based almost entirely on domestic considerations. Multiple actors with equities in a given situation, who insist on their views being considered – and, in some cases even being paramount for domestic reasons – make it difficult for the diplomat in the field to react to a developing situation based on his or her knowledge of the local environment.
The desire for organizational conformity also works against creativity in the field. Those who depart from the ‘party line,’ can find themselves subject to censure or blocking tactics by headquarters bureaucrats, or even being ordered to perform tasks that their knowledge of the local situation tells them would be counter-productive. An example of this happened to me when I served as U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe from 2009 to 2012. Three American medical volunteers who got caught up in a squabble between local suppliers were arrested near the end of their volunteer mission and charged with illegal acts. The charges were, on their face, ludicrous, and as might be expected, it caused an outcry in the U.S., with the congressional delegation from their district taking an interest. While my staff and I were working hard to keep the situation under control so that we could secure their release, the mood in Washington was ‘do something’ to show we’re doing something.
Local sensitivities to my activity were high because of completely unrelated activities, and it was our general impression that the best thing for me to do was remain aware of what was going on, but to maintain some distance from the situation so as not to fan the flames of national pride and arrogance that typifies the ruling elite in Zimbabwe. And, it was working. I’d had a few high-level meetings with officials who agreed that it could be settled if we didn’t engage in public bashing of the government. Unfortunately, in Washington, it was decided that a public action on my part was needed to reassure Congress that we were ‘on top of the situation.’ I was ordered to publicly meet with the arrested Americans to assure them the U.S. Government was concerned about their cases and was working to get them released. Completely unnecessary, as my consular staff was in constant contact with them, and they were made aware of my quiet efforts. It also risked backfiring, as it would then cause the officials involved to lose face with their colleagues and start a whole other argument about U.S. ‘meddling’ in the domestic affairs of the country.
I found myself in a dilemma. An outright refusal to comply with the order would anger Washington and endanger other initiatives we had going at the time, but to comply as ordered would put the Americans in further jeopardy. Thankfully, I’d encouraged my staff to use their brains to come up with ways to get things done rather than just check boxes. My consular staff, working with my public affairs staff, decided I could do what Washington wanted without actually doing it. I was hosting at the time a series of public concerts for young people at my residence, and we had a musical performance scheduled that week. The consular staff brought the Americans, who were out on bail, to the concert, and I spoke to them briefly in the reception line. I delivered the message, there was no publicity, and we ultimately got them released and the issue was settled peacefully.
Sometimes, though, the only way to make it work in the field is to be stubborn. In another incident, when an American had been arrested on trumped up charges in one of Zimbabwe’s provinces around the same time the provincial governor had started harassing NGOs working in his jurisdiction, Washington ‘suggested’ that I issue a strongly worded statement condemning his actions. Not a wise thing to do when I was trying to get his subordinates to release the American, and it also risked provoking the governor to increase his harassment in retaliation. So, I pulled up my pants and said, ‘No!’ in no uncertain terms. That didn’t go down well in Foggy Bottom, but I stuck to my guns. Fortunately, Zimbabwe was my last assignment before retirement, so there was really no retaliatory action the bureaucracy could take against me. The outcome was positive on both issues. The American was released, and no further action was taken against the NGOs, who, by the way, thanked me for not intervening as they were dealing with it locally, and a statement by me would have made it a national issue that could have adversely impacted on all NGOs in the country.
These are but two examples of how organizational rigidity and insistence on conformity can, if not countered, screw things up in the field.
Unfortunately, the Foreign Service, as an institution, is ill-prepared to deal with the organizational barriers to creativity. While Foreign Service professionals are highly educated, motivated individuals, once hired, there is no program of professional education to prepare them to think and act creatively in the field.
Technical training, or tradecraft to use the Foreign Service jargon, is first rate. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) offers outstanding language and area training, and excellent training in a number of specific technical skills. But, the service does not provide a system of professional education that builds a cadre of technically competent, broad thinking professionals whose body of knowledge is periodically refreshed. The attitude seems to be, you’re smart and well-educated when we hire you; you don’t need any further education. This completely ignores the fact that the things we learn in school are often outdated before the ink on our diplomas is dry.
The service also doesn’t encourage or adequately reward self-education. This is due in part to the fact that it is small and fully deployed 24/7, unlike the military which has a training float that allows officers to spend as much as half their careers in education and training courses. In the Foreign Service, one would be lucky to spend as much as ten percent of a career in any training other than language or tradecraft.
The other limitation is the conflict-avoidance culture of the Foreign Service. While there are Foreign Service professionals who are as brave as any Army Ranger, and who go to some of the world’s most dangerous places when required, the institution as a whole tries to avoid bureaucratic conflict. It’s parent organization, the Department of State, is reluctant to confront Congress on issues of funding or personnel strength (the exceptions being former secretaries Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton, who went to Congress to demand higher hiring limits), seems averse to taking its case to the American public, and often folds in the face of confrontation with other agencies, such as the behemoth Department of Defense. Many of my former colleagues are offended by this statement, but I stand by it – and the record of the past four or five decades supports it.
What Lies Ahead
The Foreign Service Act of 1980, P.L. 96-465, was passed to ‘promote the foreign policy of the United States by strengthening the Foreign Service of the United States . . .”
The following general provisions of the act spell out the importance of a strong, professional Foreign Service:
SEC. 101.1 FINDINGS AND OBJECTIVES.—
(a) The Congress finds that—
(1) a career foreign service, characterized by excellence and professionalism,
is essential in the national interest to assist the President and the
Secretary of State in conducting the foreign affairs of the United States;
22 U.S.C. 3901.
(2) the scope and complexity of the foreign affairs of the Nation have
heightened the need for a professional foreign service that will serve the foreign
affairs interests of the United States in an integrated fashion and that can provide
a resource of qualified personnel for the President, the Secretary of State,
and the agencies concerned with foreign affairs;
(3) the Foreign Service of the United States, established under the Act of
May 24, 1924 (commonly known as the Rogers Act) and continued by the Foreign
Service Act of 1946, must be preserved, strengthened, and improved in
order to carry out its mission effectively in response to the complex challenges
of modern diplomacy and international relations;
(4) the members of the Foreign Service should be representative of the
American people, aware of the principles and history of the United States and
informed of current concerns and trends in American life, knowledge-able of
the affairs, cultures, and languages of other countries, and available to serve in
assignments throughout the world; and
(5) the Foreign Service should be operated on the basis of merit principles.
(b) The objective of this Act is to strengthen and improve the Foreign Service of
the United States by—
(1) assuring, in accordance with merit principles, admission through impartial
and rigorous examination, acquisition of career status only by those who
have demonstrated their fitness through successful completion of probationary
assignments, effective career development, advancement and retention of the
ablest, and separation of those who do not meet the requisite standards of
(2) fostering the development and vigorous implementation of policies and
procedures, including affirmative action programs, which will facilitate and encourage
(A) entry into and advancement in the Foreign Service by persons
from all segments of American society, and (B) equal opportunity and fair and
equitable treatment for all without regard to political affiliation, race, color, religion,
national origin, sex, marital status, age, or handicapping condition;
(3) providing for more efficient, economical, and equitable personnel administration
through a simplified structure of Foreign Service personnel categories
(4) establishing a statutory basis for participation by the members of the
Foreign Service, through their elected representatives, in the formulation of
personnel policies and procedures which affect their conditions of employment,
and maintaining a fair and effective system for the resolution of individual
grievances that will ensure the fullest measure of due process for the members
of the Foreign Service;
(5) minimizing the impact of the hardships, disruptions, and other unusual
conditions of service abroad upon the members of the Foreign Service, and
mitigating the special impact of such conditions upon their families;
(6) providing salaries, allowances, and benefits that will permit the Foreign
Service to attract and retain qualified personnel as well as a system of incentive
payments and awards to encourage and reward outstanding performance;
(7) establishing a Senior Foreign Service which is characterized by strong
policy formulation capabilities, outstanding executive leadership qualities, and
highly developed functional, foreign language, and area expertise;
(8) improving Foreign Service managerial flexibility and effectiveness;
(9) increasing efficiency and economy by promoting maximum compatibility
among the agencies authorized by law to utilize the Foreign Service personnel
system, as well as compatibility between the Foreign Service personnel system
and other personnel systems of the Government; and
(10) otherwise enabling the Foreign Service to serve effectively the interests
of the United States and to provide the highest caliber of representation in
the conduct of foreign affairs.
While a lot has been done in the areas of language training, diversity, and compensation, the areas of professional development, policy formulation, and development of executive leadership qualities has been largely ignored. The proliferation of political appointees at all levels of the State Department has reduced the opportunities for Foreign Service professionals to get assignments that enhance their policy formulation and leadership skills, and there is NO professional education system to develop employees throughout their career.
If the spirit as well as the letter of the 1980 act is to be realized, these are areas that need serious attention. If the country is to be well-served by its diplomatic establishment in the uncertain years of the 21st century, everyone will have to take their heads out of the sand and start acting and thinking creatively. If the Foreign Service is to ‘effectively serve the interests of the United States and provide the highest caliber of representation in the conduct of foreign affairs,’ we must begin to act now.